We live in an entropic world. The amount of disorder is increasing, and fragmentation too. The loss of variety affects every sphere, from the ecological to the public response. Everything is unravelling, for we are no longer part of a liquid society. The process of digitalization is reorganizing society in an increasingly top-down manner, through its rigid procedures and pervasive forms of influence and control. Will the Metaverse absorb the world, with the outside gone? Are we destined to a universe of functional signs, which knowledgeable interpreters of contemporaneity have called “symbolic misery”?
Immanence does not make us freer, in fact, quite the contrary! When we lose the sacred dimension, of transcendence, of mystery, we are impoverished inexorably. The word sacred comes from sacer, which means separate. A sacred place is the Templum, from the word temno, which means to carve out, to mark a discontinuity. The important anthropologist Mircea Eliade recognized the reciprocity of the terms sacred/profane, which are defined one in relation to the other, where the profane is the pro-fanum, which means to stand before the temple. Therefore, there is no dualism or opposition; instead, there is an original relationship.
Between the two spaces, there is a threshold, a limen, a passage that separates and at the same time connects the inside and the outside. The portal, as Romano Guardini’s beautiful analysis of the spirit of the liturgy and of sacred signs reminds us. To cross the threshold means to abandon the ordinary, to change behavior, our clothing; in short, to recollect oneself. To move from concentration on self to receptivity. To prepare oneself for a communion based on a coming together around a common table. Where, as Pessoa puts it, “the earth is kneaded with heaven”. In fact, the temple has an “eye”, the oculus, the circular opening at the top of the dome to let in light, but more importantly to connect with the “vertical” outside. A space, but a different time too. The psychoanalyst Carl Jung emphasized the extra-temporal order of the Mass, a “rending of the veil of temporal and spatial relativity that separates the human spirit from the vision of the eternal”. In addition, this is a discontinuous time indicated by the solemnity of gestures, a slowness that breaks the frenzy, the pauses that place the noise of life at a distance. When we enter a sacred space, which converges around a common center, the standing in horizontal and vertical communion are steps in a transformative process, which re-signifies the everyday once we return to the ordinary. In the liturgy, corporeality plays a central role, and the body is involved in every dimension, whether that be perceptual, postural, or a dimension regarding its physical movement. Michel De Certeau wrote, “The praying man is a tree of gestures”. Our perceptual windows, whether that be of the sense of sight, the sense of smell with the incense, the sense of hearing with the voices, the singing, the bells, the sense of taste with bread and wine, all of them are awakened, prompted, and invited. We kneel, we stand, we shake hands, and we walk down the aisle to bring gifts (a gesture that in many cultures is infused with the motions and rhythm of a dance) and to receive the Eucharist. In keeping with the incarnation, the body is at the center, and the body signifies the whole human being. A body that does not need technological prostheses to enter into communion. The liturgy reinforces the bond. As Romano Guardini wrote, “The ‘I’ of the liturgy is the union of the believing community; it is something that transcends the mere sum of individual believers”. At a time of extreme individualism, which is revealing its problematic side, “Liturgy does not say I, it says we”. Liturgy literally means action of the people. Nevertheless, is the liturgy, as we experience it today, still capable of expressing it? In addition, to return to the initial questions, would not liturgy, with its symbolic language and the concreteness of agreeing, of recognizing, of opening to transcendence be a place of recomposition, of countering symbolic misery, of freedom from the pressures of an increasingly pervasive and powerful techno-economic system?
The concrete language of the liturgy restores flesh to the abstraction of our increasingly digitized lives; and it is a choral language, an experience of communion in an increasingly individualized world. Perhaps this is why learning from other eras and cultures can be helpful today too.
The symbol, the body, the community. Our time needs this language, this other time and space, a discontinuity that paradoxically helps to bind the pieces of our existences together. Today, however, the liturgy struggles to play this role, which is more valuable than ever. Moreover, this too, along with others, is one reason for the empty churches. Liturgies that are poorly felt and poorly cared for and especially little care is paid to the symbols and too much intellectualism, which is mistaken for spirituality. A feminine way of viewing liturgy today can be valuable in de-intellectualizing it. Once again, to cite Guardini, “Spirit is not conceptual, abstraction. Spiritual is concrete”.
Women are concrete, in the highest sense of the word. Perhaps this is why the liturgy struggles to speak to them, but the dialogue needs to be sewn together, to restore concreteness to the spirit.
This paradox speaks of the surpassing truth of the Christian way. A way that, if it recovers the freshness of its origins, has much to say to this time. “In an increasingly abstract world, a Catholic stands on the side of the concreteness of human life made up of joys and sorrows, successes and failures, victories and defeats, strength and weakness, centrality and marginality, life and death” (Guardini).
by CHIARA GIACCARDI